It was a little over a year ago when what we now call “The Ice Storm of the Century” left its mark from the Maritime Provinces to Eastern Ontario, as well as parts of the North-eastern United States. And so from January 6 to 10, 1998, fell a total of 78 mm of ice rain, breaking trees, closing roads, plunging towns into total darkness and crumpling hydro towers like beer cans on the floor at a rock concert.

The crisis, climaxing on January 9, affected more than three million people when the Metro Region of Montreal fell into total darkness. Soon water was rationed and people scrambled to purchase any provisions they could to save their livestock, keep warm, and, for some, to stay alive. Unfortunately, for those owning maple farms, orchards, and nurseries, there was not much that could be done. Now, on the anniversary of this event, with the power long restored, individuals once again caught up with the pace of everyday life, for most people the “Storm of the Century” seems eons away. We are only left with interesting tales of survival to tell. With every new successful flick of a light switch, the ice storm seems to bury itself deeper and deeper into our memories. Only the trees, standing wounded, serve as obvious reminders of what occurred a year ago. And for any arborist in the affected region, the work has just begun.

A simple weather warning on January 5, 1998, was the first of many newscasts that would tell the tale of the Storm of the Century. From thousands of kilometers away, images of devastation dominated our television screens. The panic coloring even the most experienced reporters’ voices indicated the severity of the event, which would touch the hearts of all Canadians. In the affected region, millions were without power. The Metro Region of Montreal was plunged into total darkness. Water treatment plants were left idle and water was rationed. Fire fighters waited anxiously with demolition equipment and near local swimming pools as the public improvised methods to keep warm and to illuminate their homes. Hospitals were filled with carbon monoxide poisoning victims.

For over five days, the ice rain fell, breaking trees, crumpling hydro towers and affecting over three million people. It was during that period that from the comforts of our warm homes, we in Edmonton helplessly watched in horror the devastation in Eastern Canada. We were not hydro workers, nor were we involved in the medical field. It was then that my brother Christian thought of the idea to lend a hand in an area where we could be effective. By January 15, my mother, Colette Russell Houle and I had an appointment with Andre Boudreau of the Centre Marie-Anne Gaboury, a non-profit organization, asking them to help us raise funds for our project. They were kind enough to supply us with an office, a computer and a phone. The rest was up to us.

By Saturday, January 17, we had a place to stay. Despite the panic and the lack of electricity in the region, fund-raising volunteers were able to make contacts, and it was Granby, one of the cities within the region of the “Black Triangle”, that responded. They were ready to receive us as soon as possible.

Just one week after our initial meeting with Andre Boudreau, the volunteer group of arborists met at the airport. Most of us were virtual strangers. It was thanks to companies like Northern Titan Equipment Suppliers Ltd., Canadian Forestry Equipment Ltd., Olds College, The County of Strathcona and the City of Edmonton, who supplied our equipment, that we were able to organize ourselves and leave so soon after the conception of the project. As the eight of us – Sheila Deurloo, Jim Romanuik, Mark Isbister, Eric Bouchard, Carl Valliere, my brother Christian, my mother Colette and I – waited for our plane, did we realised that our project was finally taking flight.
L’Escale was the local ballet school and community theatre in Granby. At that moment, it served as a shelter for the military and families without any other place to seek refuge. It was to be our home for the week. It was only during our candlelit breakfast at a local restaurant that it dawned on us that there was absolutely no electricity in Granby. Every source of power, including what we were fortunate enough to have at our shelter, was due to generators.

That first breakfast marked the beginning of a week of long hard days spent pruning trees in various ice-ravaged locations. We were often heartbroken, descending from trees that had suffered damage to more than 70% of their limbs. Despite our efforts, we knew that many of these trees would not survive.

The work was long, tedious and exhausting because the conditions were less than ideal. Often, thick wet snow covered the trees and the ground. Any clear day brought with it cold, cold temperatures.

We were grateful, however, to be treated to warm showers and full meals at the end of the day – things that most residents of Granby did not even have. The hospitality was very warm and generous as many locals often came to see us and express their appreciation. By the end of the week, what we had managed to accomplish had barely made a dent in the work that awaited the city employees. I feel that we were highly successful in making the point that one is never too busy to lend a hand to one’s fellow man. Ours was an act of solidarity and it was well received. We had made friends that, for some of us, will last a lifetime and because of the field experience, we had become much more knowledgeable within our trade. An ambassadorial relationship of a kind had been established between my mother as an Alberta Horticulturalist and the City of Granby’s Park Director Daniel Tessier. Carl and I stayed on to work for the city for the following two months, and Daniel’s own son and daughter worked for Colette the following summer. Our ties with Granby are valuable as much can be learned from our peers, especially when there are three provinces between us. Under the direction of Daniel Tessier, in the two months that followed, Carl and I trained eight tree climbers. Because, at the time, there weren’t any qualified arborists available in the region, Mr. Tessier hired from a long list of unemployed local residents who had experience either with trees, pruning or mountain climbing. Proper pruning techniques were emphasized because topping trees is an extremely common sight on private land in Granby. It was especially frustrating to witness a slew of trucks, bearing newly painted company logos, filled with men wearing inappropriate equipment actually paid to massacre people’s trees. The group started an inventory of all the damaged city trees. This was a great experience as it forced the team to identify the local tree species. After the climbers were confident enough, I was able to finish the inventory and created a financial report for the Government of Quebec.

I also worked with cutting crews in the urban forests, marking trees that threatened public safety and sustained too much damage. This task was a very delicate because there was concern of drastically changing the forest succession. Being a Wildlife graduate from the University of Alberta, it was important for me to make my own contribution to the local ecology by leaving a number of safe, stable snags for the local woodpecker population. There are 3289 trees belonging to the City of Granby. According to our inventory, 752 (23%) suffered more than 70% damage to their limbs and main trunks, meaning that their chances of survival are very slim. Sadly, many of these are large maples and oaks, some older than one hundred years.

In total, the city trees in Granby suffered over a million dollars in damage. This number does not reflect the lost value of these trees, but rather includes the cost of removing the hazardous limbs, all necessary equipment, future maintenance, and when needed, the cost of removal and replacement with very young trees.

I went back to Eastern Canada for a brief visit last May. The broken branches on the majority of the trees in Montreal had yet to be removed. Dangling limbs were a very common sight throughout the area of Montreal, especially in Old Montreal and the Mont Royal. The trees were, in fact, the only obvious evidence that Montreal had suffered such devastation only five months prior.
With all the trees in leaf, it was difficult to visually assess the damaged trees in Granby. All the city trees had been pruned at least once since the ice storm, therefore there weren’t any dangling broken branches left to be seen. The majority of the trees, however, had lost their beautiful natural shapes.

During my travels through the affected area, the image that remains imprinted on my brain is of the damaged forests on Mount St-Hillaire. I was unable to find information concerning the future of these forests. It was hinted that damage on Crown land may be left in the hands of nature.

In November, my brother and I returned to Eastern Canada. By that time, the trees in Montreal had all been pruned. The damage was mainly apparent in rural areas as private properties were littered with broken trees.

In Granby, it was evident that much care had been given to the city trees. What was most disturbing to see was how the private landowners could allow their trees to be massacred by contractors. Christian made the comment that in the long run, it’s not the ice storm that would have destroyed the average Granby tree, it’s the people, despite the efforts that Daniel Tessier made to inform the public on proper pruning techniques. I have heard that in some areas in the United States, unlicensed pruning or removal of trees can be controlled with heavy fines. Someday, Canadians will need to implement some sort of legislation setting proper pruning standards.

During our last visit to Granby, Christian and I conducted an interview with Daniel Tessier. He explained that the trees had been pruned three times since the ice storm, the first time directly after the storm before the sap flow to remove the hazardous limbs. The trees and shrubs were done in the spring, and again in the fall to repair some windstorm damage. Unfortunately, no money has been put aside in the city budget for more frequent pruning despite the tedious work required in the years to come to restore the damaged trees’ natural forms. The spindly new growth that sprouted over the summer months will have to be carefully chosen and trained.

In order to prevent the spread of disease, all tools were disinfected thoroughly before any contact with the vegetation. To the relief of many, insects were not a problem this past growing season. The spring was unnaturally dry and early. Leaf emergence occurred one month earlier than usual. With June came a lot of rain, which led to considerable new growth on all trees and shrubs.

There was initial fear that fungi would settle on the maples, however, the ice storm and the pruning that followed removed all the dead branches from the trees leaving nothing to attract fungi-related diseases.

According to inventories, the softwood trees (willows and poplars) suffered the least amount of damage overall. The red and sugar maples took the brunt of the blow. Ironically, according to Daniel Tessier, it was the regularly maintained trees that suffered the most damage as they had fewer branches to support and distribute the weight of the ice. Dead branches that would normally snap easily under all that weight had been pruned previously. Healthy branches bore all the weight of the ice, and, instead of breaking they tore, causing even more damage.

Cabled trees were not immune to the effects of the ice storm, however, had they not been cabled, the damage would have been considerably worse. In Granby, the practice of cabling trees had been decreased greatly in recent years. Given the damage caused by the ice storm, trees will be cabled as needed in the future.

From now on, priority will be given the younger trees whose new growth seems to mask any damage that they may have suffered during the ice storm. It was the City of Granby’s intention to leave the most damaged trees for the next few seasons. If growing conditions remained favorable like they had been this past summer, some of them will survive. As far as the City of Granby was concerned, nothing would have been lost in delaying their removal. During a recent conversation with Mr. Tessier, however, I have learned that the Government of Quebec is refusing to wait a few seasons to compensate for lost trees, therefore all the worst trees will be removed this coming summer and replaced with smaller, younger specimens.

A Prevention Plan is greatly anticipated and will take the form of an emergency contract. It has yet to be drafted and implemented.
Hydro Quebec remains responsible for all trees found under electrical wires. Big companies are hired to maintain these trees. Because the work is all done by contract, speed, not quality, is the priority. All arborists are licensed to work with electricity, however, they are not required to have arboriculture papers.

In conclusion, it will take years to quantify the exact impact of the ice storm on the trees in the affected region. Circumstance has a lot to do with their recovery in the long run. The trees are still under severe stress, making them prime targets for disease and insects. Nature, being unpredictable, may strike again with another natural disaster in Eastern Canada, and as we learned the winter of 1998, no matter what technology we may possess, there is no stopping nature when it strikes. In the case of the Granby City trees, chances of survival are as good, if not better than many, because special precautions have been taken, not only with proper pruning practices but also with proper sanitation of equipment. As for many of the privately owned trees in Granby, it’s not the ice storm that caused most of the devastation but the average contractor and homeowner. This proves to me that despite many efforts, our industry has a lot of room for improvement in the areas of professional reputation and public education.